Our coffee with two pastors
11/29/2016 11:10AM ● Published by Richard Gaw
In the days after Election Day on Nov. 8, a wave of racist and hateful incidents were reported around the United States, and The Southern Poverty Law Center tracked more than 200 acts of harassment and intimidation in the three days following the election.
They continue to add up.
In the days since, two churches in the United States were recently vandalized with racist and anti-LGBTQ graffiti referencing the president-elect. The phrase “Trump Nation, whites only” was written on the back of a sign advertising Spanish-language services at the Episcopal Church of Our Savior in Maryland.
A black church in Mississippi was recently set ablaze and vandalized with the words “Vote Trump” scrawled on the side of the building.
Whether Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, religious or agnostic, gay or straight, man or woman, black or white or Hispanic or Asian, no one can deny that the 2016 Presidential election and its subsequent results have unleashed the rhetoric and actions of a few that are categorized as homophobic, xenophobic and racist, and targeted toward immigrants, Muslims, women, homosexuals, people of color and the disabled.
These incidents have unleashed the volatility of a long-held hatred suddenly given permission to explode, and in full view of these aforementioned atrocities, the fears of many that we as a nation are no longer capable of civil engagement have become palatable.
Who do we turn to for answers? Where is the safe haven for reconciliation, hope and action? Who do we trust to host the new American Conversation?
In an attempt to address and answer these questions, the Chester County Press recently sat down over coffee at Philter in Kennett Square with Father Chris Rogers, pastor of St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Kennett Square, and Lydia E. Munoz, senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Open Door, also in Kennett Square. The following is an abridged transcript of that 45-minute-long conversation.
'A sense of exhaustion'
Chester County Press: How have you both been addressing the ramifications of this election to your respective congregations in recent weeks and months?
Rogers: I have addressed it in numerous ways, both in one-on-one conversations and from the pulpit. As a member of the church, I address it in the context of our faith, of what it is that we believe. I think it's important to call out the fact that it was a messy campaign – probably the most bitter and unconventional campaigns that we have seen. With that acknowledged and said, I begin with what we believe, especially as Christians. We believe that Christ came into the mess that is this world, with its problems and difficulties.
I put it in that context, and remind people that our response to civil matters and government matters is to be a virtuous people. Without that gift of virtue with one another in our human relationships and our relationship with God, we're doomed. It's reminding people of who we are, and what we're called to be.
Munoz: The biggest emotional response that I received from parishioners was one of exhaustion. Coming in to worship or coming into my office or calling on the phone, it was exhausting to read about and feel. Being a part of a congregation that is about 70 percent of color, one of our biggest values has been to intentionally make a diverse, multicultural community. I think people walking in the door knew that we are working to build this beloved community that Dr. King spoke about. There has also been the disbelief that this could actually be a reflection of this country, that it's not just an outlier speaking, but a reflection of who we are. What has occurred has been a kind of a waking up of truth, in a way that shows us we all have a lot of work to do.
As a clergy person, it's my job to listen to that sense of exhaustion, to name it as part of the rhetoric, and convey how the divisive and contentious platform that was set up pulled us into that magnet. It's my job to recognize that platforms can change. Administrations can change. Elections and campaigns can change, but for me, if you're committed to the Gospel and Jesus Christ, that doesn't change. The Gospel is the Spirit of the Lord. That message has not changed. That's what I focus on. What do the words of Jesus say, and how do we contrast that with everything we've been hearing?
'Ministries of justice'
Chester County Press: At this contentious time, do you feel your jobs have been made more challenging as a result of this rhetoric and these incidents? Maybe this election did reveal the fact that we as a society are not as open as we have perceived ourselves to be.
Father Rogers: This election has revealed a lot. Many people I've spoken to voted but had to hold their nose in doing so, given that they weren't too proud of the choices on either side. So what's our role? I'd like to think that the names on the ballot for president were not a reflection of our local communities, but to a certain extent, it's really a call on our local communities to wake up, and say, 'This is coming from somewhere, and something is feeding this.' In this particular point in time, it's a moment when we can wake up and self examine ourselves, and ask what we're doing.
Pastor Munoz: I've experienced an increase in people who have approached me and said that this is the reality of my family, and what do we do? Some of those are immigrant families who are really afraid. The week after the election, I received calls from three families, and as much as we provide ourselves in Kennett Square as an embracing community, there are problems.
I have had talks with several of my colleagues where we've asked, 'Do we become communities where we provide sanctuary? Do we need to become congregations where we stand in the gap, more than we did before? Do we remain ministries of mercy, or become ministries of justice, where we're standing up and saying, 'No, you can't violate that rule?'
Getting rid of labels
Chester County Press: Every week, you both face a sea of parishioners who look up to you. Do either of you ever feel like you're the one people are looking up to for the answers?
Father Rogers: When you're a little kid, you look up to those who are higher than you, and eventually, you grow up and you begin to ask, 'What is higher than me?' I think the call for us is to know and seek the truth and then to form our own consciences, according to the truth. The church isn't in the business of telling people what to believe, but proclaiming what we as a church do believe – the truths of our faith and what they mean for the common good, the dignity of the person and the respect of people. But the church is not in the business of condemning candidates or their campaigns, but informing the conscience of our parishioners, so that they can make their own decision.
Pastor Munoz: In my community, there were very few who voted for the President-elect. The biggest concern was for human rights. I know that as a clergy person, it's difficult sometimes to stay consistent to the Gospel , and not have to call out things that are clearly wrong, so you don't want to alienate people who are trying to get closer to God.
I think my responsibility is to help people develop the critical thinking tools that they need, so that they make really critical choices, based on information. I have parishioners who waked the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and they tell me that this [current environment] sounds the same as that time. However, part of the beauty and the difficulty of trying to live in a community trying to come together is to get rid of the labels of Progressive and Conservative – and just become people of conscience.
We need to at least become engaged in conversation, and somehow we can find ourselves in the middle or somewhere to enable us to live together. We can not allow the hate to actually work and divide us. We need to move beyond that.
Chester County Press: Places of worship and their constituencies are facing the big unknown.
Father Rogers: What directs us is not the unknown, but the known. Jesus Christ has come into the world, and it's not just for a certain congregation, but for all human kind. He became one of us. It's that known truth of His way of the Gospel – His way of living – it's that way that produces virtue, that produces the good. It's the Good News, and it's Good News for all. But the more segregated we are with labels and groupings, the more limited we become and the more fearful we become of the other.
Pastor Munoz: We are waiting in anticipation of hope, but as we are waiting for hope, we're working for hope. We are waiting for peace, but as we are waiting for peace, we are building peace. We are waiting for love, but as we are waiting for love, we are building love. We're responsible and accountable to each other.
The message is of God is for us to be fully alive. If we're working toward helping each other become fully alive and pulling out the best in each other -- in helping this community become fully alive – that alertness forms questions, and it allows us to tie in the Gospel with our political engagement and involvement.
Chester County Press: The cultural, religious and spiritual landscape of our nation has experienced a shot to the gut from this campaign, but with every punch we've taken, we've seen small signs of hope. Where are the signs of hope you have seen in your respective parishes, and if you haven't seen them, where do you look for them?
Father Rogers: It happens in the day to day, in the unspectacular, but in a culture that likes the spectacular – that likes the fireworks – we're drawn to the contentious. We're drawn to the things that show division. Unity and order doesn't make headlines. It doesn't grasp the 24-hour news cycle. Insofar as how that unity can be worked for, we canforge concrete ways of looking at immigration reform, for example, and how we can move forward on these issues. These are the times when people can take ownership and find ways of making things work.
The hope is found in cultivating an environment where we engage people rather than shout at them, where we get to know the other person. That's where the hope is, but because that's not romantic, it tends toward not being terribly exciting. But the more that we can appreciate those we are opposed to us, the more unity we will find, and the better for the culture.
Pastor Munoz: Our congregation did a study on [American scholar, author, and public speaker] Brene Brown's research on the emotion of Shame. She wrote that when you operate out of scarcity and fear, you begin to create a narrative that is based on that fear. You fear everyone and everything. You're angry. You find fault, because you have the fear that you're not good enough, so that you feel you have to guard everything that you are, because God forbid someone should come in and destroy who you are and what you have. Part of what has happened has been that we have let the rhetoric of scarcity and fear win the conversation.
Our congregation has begun to look at ourselves and others as believing that we are all worthy of acceptance of love. Because of that, there have been voices that have been speaking pretty loudly, beyond the rhetoric of the campaign. For me, the hope that I see is in our young people. These young adults are going to change the landscape of this country, beyond the question of diversity.
'This Productive Engine'
Chester County Press: For those who are fighting to reconcile with this election and the divide they see in the nation that came from it, what do you say to them?
Pastor Munoz: I have a nephew who is a 30-year-old African-American in descent. He is very distraught about this [election]. He has stopped several times, because of the color of his skin. He tells me that it feels like now, there is this permission granted, that this kind of thing can happen, all the time. I told him that it was a legitimate anger.
We need to acknowledge what people are feeling, and not try to deny it. But what are going to do with this anger? If we live in this constant battling anger, then essentially, the hateful rhetoric that you have heard, will win. But if you take this anger, and use it to become engaged and build relationships with people, then that anger becomes this productive engine.
Father Rogers: Whenever we experience anger, it's good to take a deep breath, and acknowledge the fact that we're still here. We should have someone to talk to. If you are really angry or hurt, you should be able to share that with another person, and to begin to see that it is something big in one's life, but it's part of a bigger whole, and to use this to seek clarity. A lot of times, those things which anger us can get the best of us, and a lot of times, it's a call to a further maturity in one's own life.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail email@example.com.